Q&A: An up-and-coming basketball coach

Name: Yanni Hufnagel
Age: 32
City: Berkeley
Position: Cal assistant men’s basketball coach

J.: Before coming to U.C. Berkeley, you were an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, and before that you helped lead Harvard to a 90-30 record in four seasons as an assistant. Has basketball always been a big part of your life?

Yanni Hufnagel: When I was growing up in Scarsdale, New York, I played lacrosse, but I was always a basketball fanatic. I remember at 6 years old watching the 1989 national championship game between Seton Hall and Michigan, and I was jumping up and down in front of the TV with every change of possession. But the truth is I was cut from my varsity team going into my junior year of high school. Basketball has always been a true love, but at some point the ball stops bouncing.

Yanni Hufnagel

J.: Not being able to play varsity in high school — let alone in college at Cornell — didn’t seem to dampen your love of the game. Did you always want to coach?

YH: Coaching has always been in my blood. I was doing it all the way back at Jewish summer camp in Maine when I was 16. I was coaching 15-year-olds in basketball and lacrosse. I like motivating kids. When I was 10 or 11, I bought a basketball coaching book by [legendary UCLA coach] John Wooden. And after being cut from the team, I ended up as the color commentator for the games on the local access TV station. I like being around basketball.
How did you wind up coaching?

YH: After college, I did an internship with the New Jersey Nets [of the NBA]. I was one of a couple hundred people who applied for that spot, and I got it. Then I was lucky enough to parlay that into other opportunities [namely, a position as a graduate assistant to Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel]. I’ve been very fortunate in making connections to help take me to my next spot. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d be doing what I’m doing.

One of the big roles of a college assistant coach is to recruit. What does that entail?

YH: It’s a function of where you are and whom you work for. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked at some terrific brands: Harvard, Vanderbilt and Berkeley. You’re talking about three of the most powerful global [university] brands in the world. I’ve tried to use that as a starting point as an attractive option for high school kids. Beyond that, I’ve worked for some really good head coaches. Brands and bosses. I call those the “two B’s.” Without the backbone of a good brand and a terrific boss, I wouldn’t have had the same success I’ve had.
Jews have a long history in basketball, mostly in management, but also as players in the early days of the pro game. Do you feel there’s a bond among Jews in the game?

YH: The Jewish coaching community is very tight knit and very strong. The media in college basketball is largely Jewish, and that’s helped me get my name out there. There aren’t that many Jewish basketball coaches, but we’re strong in our togetherness. If you look at owners in the NBA, they’re predominately Jewish, so that’s helped open the door for Jewish executives in the NBA.
Has basketball in any way helped connect you with your Jewish roots?

YH: I take great pride in being Jewish. I went to temple for all of the High Holidays and had my bar mitzvah. I’ve gotten involved with the Hillel at Cal, and was involved with the Hillel at Oklahoma. At Harvard and Vanderbilt, I never got involved, and looking back, I wish I did.

J.: Have you tried any Bay Area Jewish delicatessens yet?

YH: Not yet, but I don’t keep kosher, so there are a number [of various restaurants] in the Bay Area that I want to try. I’m excited to be at Cal, living in the Bay Area and being part of this Jewish community. I didn’t come here for the weather. I came here to be a part of something special and to help build a program from the ground floor. I plan on being here as long as it takes to cut down nets and win championships.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected]